Are you the type of person who strikes up conversations with folks at airports or on subways or in line for a bagel?
My wife is. You sit next to her on an airplane, and she will know your life story by the time you reach your destination.
I ‘m usually not like that, but while I was waiting in line at the airport in Berlin about to begin my journey home from the 2018 European Championships last August, I couldn’t help myself.
The guy standing behind me had a credential from the meet hanging around his neck, and I guess I was still buzzing from the endorphins I’d accumulated while watching some of the best throwers in the world compete in front of 60,000 joyous fans at the Berlin Olympiastadion because next thing I knew I was talking to him about the meet.
It turns out that he was a German club coach from Wiesbaden in town to attend the Euros, and more specifically to watch the throwing events.
His name is Zlatko Zigric, and after we spoke for a few minutes I told him about Mcthrows and asked if I could do an interview with him regarding the German club system which has helped to produce so many outstanding throwers.
It’s funny, Germans have a reputation for reticence, which I sometimes think is well-earned. They will not, for example, acknowledge you when you pass them on the street. Nor will their dogs. German dogs are so well-trained that their owners can take them anywhere (the park, the tram, restaurants) secure in the knowledge that their dog will not embarrass them by sniffing butts or stealing liver wurst. Here, for example, is a picture I took of a dog patiently waiting in line at a post office in Berlin:
Looks like he’s waiting to mail a letter, doesn’t he?
Luckily for me, German throws coaches are not at all standoffish when it comes to talking about their craft. Zlatko was the fourth German coach I’d had the opportunity to chat with in Berlin, and each was exceedingly generous in sharing information and doing so in English. He even supplied the photos of his club facilities that are contained in this post.
If, like me, you are familiar with the American method of developing track and field athletes, I think you’ll be intrigued by the advantages and disadvantages of our school-based approach compared with the German club-based system.
Clearly, we in America benefit from the affiliation of sports programs with schools. At my high school in the suburbs of Chicago, for example, we had 250 boys and girls on our track team last year. Our crosstown rival had almost as many, so in a single American city of 50,000 people, nearly 500 teenagers competed in track and field. Throw in another 200 or so pre-teens competing at our middle schools, and that is a lot of potential talent entering the pipeline. That level of participation would not be possible, though, without our public school system paying coaches and providing facilities.
German schools do not do that.
Nor do they have university programs that provide financial aid and world-class coaching as the best athletes take the next steps in their development.
The German club system does, however, provide a support system for athletes for the duration of their careers, thus eliminating a big hurdle faced by American post-collegiates: how to stay in the sport long enough to reach their ultimate potential.
The German federation also provides club coaches with access to a comprehensive training program to enhance their ability to develop young athletes.
But, enough from me. Let’s hear about this from Zlatko.
Can you tell me about your background? Where did you grow up?
I was born 1963 in Zagreb (former Yugoslavia, today’s Croatia). When I was four years old, my parents migrated to Germany where my father’s ancestors originally came from. From elementary school to my graduation in electronics in the university I was educated in Germany.
What were your athletic experiences?
When I was twelve years old, I became part of my school’s track and field team where I threw the 200-gram ball in a competition between different schools of my hometown Wiesbaden (near Frankfurt/Main). A school friend who also was a team member invited me to join him in the track and field club where he was a member because no one in the club could throw the ball as far as I did. At that time, I would have rather liked to train martial arts but my parents did not allow this. So I joined my school friend in his track and field club. There I found a friendly group of peers who were instructed by an experienced coach.
Quickly, I was integrated in this clique and we had a lot of engagements even outside our sports activities. This experience strongly influenced my attitude to sports and to track and field in particular. Track and field athletes are often considered to be strong individualists and for that reason will not perform any team sport. This may be true for some of them, but it is true for some guys who perform team sports as well. Actually, performing the same sport in the same club or in the same sports ground brings people together anyway.
Training track and field disciplines was great fun for me. I worked out three times a week. If my coach would have offered, I would have worked out every day. I found it boring to only just run, throw or jump, so I found my way to decathlon. When I was fourteen years old I tried to throw discus for the first time. By chance, I had a good feeling for this discipline and a month after my first throw I reached a distance of 47,58 m with the 1 kg discus. The throwing disciplines stayed my favorites among the disciplines of the decathlon or heptathlon.
Unfortunately, my training group was dissolved when I was sixteen years old. I still kept on training somehow about three times a week and attended some competitions until I got drafted in the basic military service, but the results were moderate as it was to be expected with the lack of coaching instructions. Anyway, at that time I reached ranks somewhere around the first five in the provincial level of the German Federal State of Hessen in the throwing disciplines and in Decathlon.
How did you become a coach?
After I finished the basic military service, which was obligatory in Germany at that time, I turned to old habits and started to work out regularly on the well known sports ground. There I met some old friends who had the same idea. We became a training group. After some training sessions where each time we first had to discuss what to train together I got the idea to ask a former coach of our club to help and instruct me to build up a training plan. Because I took the initiative, I became the administrator of the training plan and suddenly I was “the coach.” Also, I started reading literature and articles about track and field training methods, techniques for the disciplines and about athletic training in general. Then I started developing new plans and instructing my athletes autonomously.
Soon, younger athletes joined my training group and the generations changed with the time. After my friends who were my first athletes as a coach stopped training regularly because of their jobs and families, I coached young people from fourteen to twenty years of age.
Besides studying (and later besides my job) I found no time to obtain a coaching license. I made up for this eight years ago when I changed my job from an IT manager to a teacher at a vocational school. This year, I plan to obtain the coaching license in the A-level to gain further knowledge and to learn to know other coaches to exchange views.
What will you have to do to obtain your A-level coaching certificate?
The German Athletics Association’s (Deutscher Leichtathletik Verband DLV) licensing model for coaches for competitive sport provides three successive and interrelated levels:
Level C is intended for the basic track and field training of children in the age of eleven to fourteen years. The education of the coaches includes one week of gaining general basic knowledge in sport science in a first part focusing on topics like:
– impact of sporting activities on muscles, tendons, bones, vessels, nerves and the cardiovascular system
– general training structure
– good and bad general sporting exercises, etc.
The second part of the education usually takes place on weekends and includes practical and theoretical training in the specific track and field disciplines (techniques, exercises, training structure). Usually the education ends with a theoretical and a practical test. All together it takes a time of at least 120 learning units (45 min each) to obtain the track and field C license.
Level B is intended for those training young athletes in the age of fifteen to nineteen years. The scope of this license is focused on one of the specific track and field discipline blocks: sprints, long distance running, jumping, throwing and combined athletics. The education covers topics like:
– long-term planning and controlling of track and field training
– biological development and physiological principles of performance of adolescents
– technique models and teaching them to athletes with different skill levels
– social, pedagogical and psychological competences etc.
Usually the education ends with a test covering the development of a training plan for a specific period and an analysis of an athlete’s technique with proposals for exercises to improve the detected deficiencies. To obtain the B license at least 60 learning units are required.
Level A is intended for athletes in the age from 19 years. This coaching level is intended for top-level sports and focuses on one of the specific track and field discipline blocks: sprinting, long distance running, jumping, throwing and combined athletics. The education covers topics like:
– training strategies for young athletes and top-level sport
– short-, middle- and long-term planning, documentation and evaluation
– physiological and biological basics of performance
– psychological controlling during training and competitions
– talent scouting and promotion etc.
This education consists of three parts:
- Five days course with theoretical and practical instructions.
- Work shadowing training and competitions with a DLV (German Athletics Association) coach.
- Three days exam course.
Additionally to the exam, a homework needs to be developed in which the coach plans the training process of his own group of athletes, documents the realization and the controlling and finally analyzes and evaluates the process. To obtain the A license, at least 90 learning units are required.
As I mentioned above, the licenses are successive. To obtain the A license you first need to obtain the C and the B license and you need to be active as a B-license coach at least for three years. To keep the license, a coach needs to periodically attend courses.
What kinds of athletes are you currently training? How old are they and what are your typical practices like?
I currently train young athletes in the age of fifteen up to nineteen years of age. Four guys train and compete in decathlon, and one of the guys has specialized in discus and shotput. Additionally, two athletes who do not compete and do not work out five-to-six times a week join our training group. Most likely a few new young athletes will join the group soon because their old training group was dissolved. This year, my athletes reached the highest ranks in our federal state and rank among the first thirty in the federal level of Germany.
I suppose that my typical practices are very common. A usual training session consists of warming up, short stretching, coordination exercises, discipline training and finally a chill out run and/ or stretching. Mostly we train two disciplines in one training session, but this depends on the season. In the development phase, which will start very soon, we have a lot of training sessions without any specific discipline training. Instead, the athletes do more weight lifting, specific gymnastics, explosive power training, etc.. In my training plan I orient myself on the proposals of the DLV’s (German Athletics Association) outline training plan.
Here in the US, when an athlete finishes high school (usually at the age of eighteen) if they wish someday to be a professional thrower they enroll at a university and train and compete there for four or five years. In your case, if you have a promising athlete would they continue to train at your club as they reach the age of eighteen or nineteen or would they join a training group run by a full time coach? And how is that decision made?
Track and field sport in Germany is mainly performed in small clubs, which are operated by volunteers. But there are a few bigger clubs which are sponsored by companies. These clubs can afford to engage coaches and administrative staff who do their jobs professionally. The athletics associations of the federal states of Germany and the German Athletic Association engage full time coaches and volunteers to coach the squads. The German talent development program plans that young talents are spotted already in the age from thirteen years. The young talents stay with their clubs, but they will be promoted with additional training sessions which are given from the coaches of the athletic federation of the related federal state. The association’s coaches are supposed to advise and to coordinate the training schedules with the home coaches. The talent promotion is built up in squads from E to A. Squads E to D cover young talents from twelve to approximately nineteen years. These are coordinated by the federal states associations. The German athletic association covers squads C to A. Squad C covers young athletes from sixteen to twenty-two years. Squads B and A are intended for grown-up top athletes. The call for an athlete to a specific squad depends on the performance of a particular athlete who is spotted by the coaches of the associations.
A good promotion for German top class athletes is granted when they start a police career or a career in the German Armed Forces. The athletes obtain a complete professional education, a paid workplace and time for the necessary training to be a top athlete.
Some sports funding exists in Germany like e.g. “Stiftung Deutsche Sporthilfe“. This way top athletes can obtain some financial support. Some athletic clubs are able to organize a sponsoring for their top athletes. And here I come to the probably most important trigger for decisions of athletes why and when to change their club. When an athlete decides to get professional with his or her sport, he or she needs to be financed.
The school system in Germany in general is not intended to promote sport talents. At best, the teachers recommend a young athlete to join a sports club if they can see a talent. A few schools cooperate with sports clubs in order to promote talents in the way that training sessions get coordinated and home work and tests are scheduled on dates which are the least inconvenient e.g. to perform on competitions on weekends.
If young athletes reach higher performance levels, they usually change their club for one or two reasons: they expect better training options and/or they expect a better financial support. Because the bigger clubs have better options to cater for these expectations, young athletes often change from a smaller club to a bigger club when they reach a higher performance level.
In my club, we try to promote a few athletes who reached the top class and who are close to it. But there is an everlasting discussion about the main goals of the club: Are we able to handle the development of young talents plus the promotion of top athletes, or do we neglect many interested young athletes because we focus on a few top athletes?
By the way, not all top athlete coaches are full time coaches. For instance Günther Eisinger, who was the coach of the former very successful high jumper Ariane Friedrich, earned his living as a teacher before he became a pensioner. He was just “crazy” enough to spend all the rest of his time to coach and manage top class athletes besides his job.
Dear Readers: Let me know if you have questions for Zlatko and I’ll bug him about a follow-up interview.